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APPEALS COURT CUTS DELAYS FOR HANDLING UTAH CASES

In California, if you don't want to wait five years for a court date, you can Rent-A-Judge.

Attorneys hire a retired judge at $250 an hour to listen to their case and rule expeditiously. Lured by the dollars and seeking an escape to crowded dockets, many trial judges are leaving the bench to pursue this new trend of justice.But in Utah, attorneys are complaining that the trial courts and Court of Appeals are moving cases too quickly. Lawyers with a large caseload can't keep pace.

"Compared with other states, there is no delay problem in Utah," says Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Zimmerman. "We don't have significant delay at the trial level, and the delay at the appellate level is vastly improved."

It was only five years ago that there was an "unconscionable" delay in Utah Supreme Court appeals. But with new Utah Court of Appeals beginning its work three years ago, the average appeal requires less than a year for completion, said Zimmerman.

So, with all this progress why does 88 percent of the public, according to the Dan Jones poll, view delays as a major problem in Utah courts?

The answer probably lies in national media attention being paid the delay issue - and in the names Pierre Dale Selby and William Andrews, said Zimmerman.

In a recent address to the Commission of Justice in the 21st Century, Gov. Norm Bangerter said the most frequent complaint he hears about the courts focuses on the exhaustive appeals process Andrews, a death row inmate, has undertaken during the past 15 years. Andrews was convicted of the 1974 torture-slayings of three people in the infamous Ogden Hi Fi Shop case. Selby was executed by lethal injection for those killings in 1987.

Bangerter urged the jsutice commission to support federal judicial reforms currently before Congress to limit the amount of federal appeals in death penalty cases. He recognizes the delay was primarily at the federal level.

"I don't think the public knows who to blame for the delay," said Zimmerman. "The reality is that the law couldn't have been in more transition than during that case. It got caught in the middle."

The standard for review in death penalty cases is high because "you don't want to make mistakes. You're killing someone," he said.

Proponents of the death penalty argue that murderers don't give their victims due process. "But a civilized society can't proceed with matters of death with the same abandon as the murderers of the cases it reviews," said Zimmerman.

Congress could limit the steps in death penalty cases. "But the more you streamline the process, the more likely you will execute innocent people," the justice said.

Utah's trial courts have received commendation nationally for their individual scheduling process, where judges control their own dockets. Civil cases generally go to trial within 45 days after lawyers indicate readiness. And criminal matters go to trial within a month. But any delay is a problem to the extent people are disadvantaged, he said.

"A judge can no longer be the potted plant in a courtroom."

To fully eradicate delay in Utah's courts, judges must take a more active managerial role - not just sit back and be the trier of an issue.

"The courts haven't traditionally exerted strong control to force lawyers to move their cases faster. But judges need to ride herd on it. It could change the legal culture," he said. "There will be a lot of resistance."

Judges are just old lawyers, so they understand juggling many cases at the same time. But the courts should aggressively encourage lawyers to thin out their inventory and work fewer cases faster.

"The justice system just isn't a fast system. but we have to examine our procedures to determine what increases delay and costs - while ensuring fairness.